Building a Community in Our Classroom:

The Story of Bat Town, U.S.A.

 

Andrea McGann Keech

"I’ve got a problem,” said one of my students with a thoughtful frown, “and I’d like to call a city council meeting about it. I’m not getting enough help from my business partner, and I need some advice.”

“Fine,” I told him, acting in my official capacity as city manager. “We can do that this afternoon right after recess.”

“Then I’ll need to reschedule my Resource Room time,” a girl sitting near us chimed in. “I’ll check with my teacher and get back to you.”

“Okay,” the boy replied with a nod. “This problem needs our attention now!”

I couldn’t help smiling at this very serious conversation in my third and fourth grade combination class. With just a few changes in wording, the interchange could have been taking place between the actual members of our town’s city council members. Instead, it was occurring in a classroom of students who were participating in a social studies simulation exercise known as Classroom City.1 We had certainly come a great distance from that first day several weeks ago when we held our ribbon cutting ceremony and officially opened the simulated city fondly known as Bat Town, U.S.A.

In our combination classes, the curriculum rotates between topics every other year. This year in social studies our focus was on communities. We had already studied communities in Japan and China. As participants in the national Kid’s Voting USA project, we had followed developments in the local election. Finally, we were ready to take a long look at changes in the community of our own school, Roosevelt Elementary in Iowa City, Iowa, and to begin work on creating a thriving model classroom community of our own in room 116.

Today, Roosevelt Elementary is a school with international connections. Our proximity to the University of Iowa and programs there which attract scholars and their children from around the world makes our school fortunate enough to have an extremely rich diversity of learners. In our classroom alone there were recent arrivals from China, Japan, Sudan, Indonesia and Korea. Children representing many ethnicities come together here and learn together about their world and about themselves. Finding common ground to study the meaning of “community” presents my group with a challenge.

We focused our study of the community on the school itself, using the social studies standards themes of 3 People, Places and Environments, and 2 Time, Continuity and Change.2 To mark our schoo#146;s sixtieth birthday a few years ago, a wonderful book called Reflections of Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School had been created by Dr. Nora Steinbrech, principal of the school for more than eighteen years. It tells the stories, sometimes moving, sometimes gently humorous, of students, teachers, principals, parents and friends who walked these halls before us.

We read this book together and reflected on our own stories, experiences that we’d like to pass along to future generations about our days at Roosevelt. These were recorded in memory books to keep and to share. Ideas came easily. We included a visit from Echo, the bat, and a trip to a real bat colony in an old schoolhouse; our Chinese New Year feast when we sampled all of those new and delicious foods, and the staging of our very own original drama, The Terrible Tragedy of the Titanic.

Next, we made an effort to begin really observing those little details of our schoo#146;s architecture and design around us, the things we’d always hurried by and taken for granted without a second thought before now. Our appreciation for the passing of time heightened. “Look,” someone would say as we walked past the old original facade of the building, “that’s the 1931 entrance. Isn’t it beautiful? Look at the carved stone!” On our way to P.E. one day, another student pointed out the place where large Palladian windows once brought in the western sunlight. “Why did they brick them in?” several children wanted to know. Well, think about the problems that could result by having enormous glass windows in a building now used as a gymnasium. “Why can’t we sled down ‘Suicide Hil#146; in the Ravine anymore?” That question had a fairly obvious answer!

We noticed the additions to our school over the years, variations in building materials, hidden “secret” passages, the signs small and large of changes which had taken place over the decades. Along with the Reflections book of “old” Roosevelt, we read several other excellent stories which provided us with a real sense of the passing of time and what that means in the life of a child and a community.

Who Came Down that Road? by George Ella Lyon is a book of few words and many beautiful images.3 We used it to heighten our awareness of Time, Continuity and Change. As a young boy and his mother walk down a well-traveled path, they imagine all of those long-ago footsteps falling upon the very same path. Mastodon and woolly mammoth, buffalo and elk, Native Americans, settlers, soldiers in blue and gray, and finally a mother and her child. “Who will come next,” they wonder—and we wondered, too. We composed our own original pages filled with writing and illustrations to add to the book. Each of us provided a new page, suggestions for the “next” entry, about who or what might follow the young boy and his mother down the path. Some students suggested the boy’s own child might one day pass that way. An understanding of our past can provide us with a better preparation for the future.

Another book with lovely illustrations and a haunting tale of time’s passing is Dyan Sheldon’s Under the Moon.4 Finding an arrowhead in her backyard, a young girl tries to picture a world without automobiles, airplanes, and cities. What did this place look like with open fields and clear streams? Who lived here? Who made this arrowhead she holds today? She begins to imagine what life might have been like when the “land was as open as the sky.” Cultures have maintained their traditions and customs over time. We wanted to learn more about the culture that had produced the arrowhead.

Inspired by this book, I brought in a number of arrowheads turned up by the blade of my grandfather’s mule-pulled plow on his farm in the 1920s for the children to examine first-hand. We then took a class trip to the natural history museum at Iowa Hall on the University of Iowa campus, where knowledgeable tour guides helped us to understand the history and uses of a wonderful variety of Native American cultural artifacts, such as arrowheads, axes, spearheads, pottery, beadwork, and clothing. We viewed and discussed several life-sized historical dioramas depicting the Meskwaki people who have lived here on the banks of our Iowa River for thousands of years. Our trip to the museum helped us to understand continuity and change in the culture of the Meskwaki, early residents of our community.

In The House on Maple Street by Bonnie Pryor, we read another story of an arrowhead and a small porcelain cup, how they were lost by children long ago and how they came to be found many years later by two sisters digging in their garden.5 We wrote about treasures we might leave behind in our Roosevelt Ravine for others to find one day. What would our special things tell future “diggers” about us? Would those archeologists really appreciate the significance of beloved Beanie Babies? Taking a walk around the neighborhood, we even found an old house like the house on Maple Street. We talked about the many changes the people in the house must have seen from those windows.

We also used a series of seven amazing posters called “The Changing American Cityscape.”6 The fictional town of New Providence as depicted in the posters is actually a composite of many buildings from real cities throughout the United States at various time periods. As we looked at the first poster showing 1875, we saw horses and buggies, muddy streets, and a town just getting started. Over the weeks we added the subsequent posters in the series to the wall. “That’s how our town might have looked when Roosevelt Elementary School was built,” I told the children as we hung the poster from the 1930s. “There’s even an airship!” a sharp-eyed boy who was then engrossed in a study of the Hindenburg pointed out. The posters range from 1885 to the 1990s. The incredible detail in this beautiful series sparks lively discussion and comparisons among the various attributes of the many decades.

We used the posters as models, and working in cooperative learning groups students did research and made our own posters of our changing Roosevelt “schoolscape” through the decades. They showed teachers’ and students’ clothing and hair styles, games played on the playground, popular music selections, and an outline of the school building’s dimensions during a particular period of time. It became a common sight to see small clusters of students around the sets of posters throughout the day, happily discussing history and its changes—what teacher of social studies can ask for more than that?

Finally, we read Alice McLerran’s story of the little community known as Roxaboxen set in the 1930s “on a hill on the southeast corner of Second Avenue and Eighth Street, in Yuma, Arizona.”7 The children in the story, one the author’s mother, built their own town with rocks and boxes, bits of jewel-colored glass and sticks. There was a mayor and a town hall, a bakery, and two ice cream parlors, because in Roxaboxen “you can eat all the ice cream you want.” It’s just the sort of town any child would love. Everyone always had “plenty of money” because there were “plenty of shops.” The story in the book took place during the Great Depression, just when our own Roosevelt School was being built. The availability of money and the ice cream were only real in the imaginations of the citizens of Roxaboxen.

Through our readings, discussions, and reflections, we learned many things about communities and the reasons which bring people together. The passing of time and the changing of the landscape became familiar concepts to us. Traditions, conventions, and common goals all played a part in our studies. Now we were ready at last to create our very own model of a community, right in the classroom. This simulation would be a more structured way of making our small community run smoothly and successfully.

To help us organize our own town, we used many elements from a unit available through Interaction Publishers called Classroom City. We didn’t follow the sequence of the lessons precisely, nor did we feel bound to do every aspect of the simulation. My students would have had some difficulty computing “financial interest on accounts” or figuring up their “income tax.” Even adults, after all, can experience difficulty with those! We used the basic organizational guidelines and general format provided by the Classroom City lesson plans.

Persuasive speeches were written and delivered as children ran for public office. The election of officials followed. City council meetings were held to get things organized. Everyone submitted a flag design to represent our city and one with a prominent flying fox bat, designed by a talented girl who would eventually open The Artistic Bat Store, was chosen by popular vote. Students brainstormed together about what kinds of businesses they might like to have in Bat Town, U.S.A. and what products or services they could offer for sale to other residents and visitors. This simulation expanded our study to incorporate the social studies standards themes of 6 Power, Authority and Governance as well as 7 Production, Distribution and Consumption. A detailed listing of everyone’s job duties, citizen roles and responsibilities, goals, and activities are provided in the Classroom City teacher’s guide. Our own special touches like the classroom museum, the cookie shop, and the play station were suggested by the students themselves as our simulation progressed.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony opened the town, which the children had decided to call Bat Town, U.S.A. In science we studied bats as a part of our Physics of Sound unit, and their fascination with the world’s only flying mammal continued unabated throughout the year, contributing to their interest in naming the model city for these important animals.

As teacher, I held the title of city manager to keep things smoothly on track. 0 Civic Ideals and Practices are an integral aspect of our model city. Thanks to a helpful and informative booklet called “The Children’s Guide to Local Government” published by the Iowa City city manager’s office, we were able to compare the organization of our model community, Bat Town, U.S.A., with that of our own Iowa City. A mayor and vice mayor were elected by the students. The mayor greets all visitors to the city, is the ribbon cutter at the town’s opening, and conducts city council meetings. The vice mayor is second in command. S/he votes on the city council and can remove from office any public officials who fail to perform their duties.

Our city council members were elected as well. Only members of the council and the vice mayor could start a motion or vote on a motion during meetings, but anyone could approach a member with a concern and have it brought before the council. Our class meetings were lively affairs filled with spirited debates and a free exchange of ideas. The council members reviewed all citations issued by health, fire and police departments and assigned fines. They also reviewed and voted on all student applications to open a business. Potential business owners wrote a description of the purpose of their store or service, and the application needed to win the approval of three-fourths of the council before “construction” could proceed.

In addition to the elected officials, there were a myriad of positions to fill, such as police officers to enforce “speeding” violations in the hallways and “noise” ordinances; bankers to distribute income paid weekly; an editor of our illustrious newspaper, appropriately called the Night Times; and a fire marshal to monitor litter in desks, keep our “streets” clear of clutter, and hold fire drills as necessary. There were lots and lots of storekeepers, those entrepreneurial types who quickly learned how to make their money grow.

Busy afternoons were spent learning and practicing Robert’s Rules of Order, holding city council meetings to approve or disapprove of permits for businesses, making a map of the town for visitors, designing a town logo and flag to fly, writing columns for the Night Times (“Dear Batty” proved a popular favorite), and preparing our town for the coming “tourist season” when younger guests would come to visit Bat Town and patronize our stores with “bat dollars” distributed by our bankers.

All students had jobs and were paid a weekly wage, according to principles suggested in the Classroom City teacher’s guide. Money could also be earned by taking on a duty like editing or contributing features to the newspaper, assessing and collecting fines for violations of city codes, operating a popular business where students could spend their wages, or holding elected office. Fate cards that were drawn weekly either awarded money (“You specialize in decorating book covers for your friends and make $12”) or deducted it (“A lost book costs you $9 to replace”). Students came up with many creative ideas for earning those sought-after “bat dollars.”

We used cardboard boxes and construction paper to make store-fronts. Among the many options Bat Town shoppers could choose from were homemade cookies or Girl Scout cookies with free ice water, books for rent, origami paper cranes, samurai hats folded from newspaper, pen and ink drawings from a girl with artistic gifts in abundance, stuffed toy rentals, small erasers, stickers, handmade book markers, and a play station offering games of skill. Once the town was up and running, the excitement was tremendous. My students used some of the “bat dollars” they had earned as wages in the earlier weeks of the simulation to spend in the various shops run by their friends. There were two shifts on successive days so that everyone had turns both to sell and shop. They bought items from the businesses run by fellow students, munched cookies from the cookie shop, and visited the play station to try their luck at games like “Ghost Toss” and the tricky “Balancing Bears.” They insisted on trying out everything themselves before the “tourists” arrived! Who could blame them?

As the younger children came to visit, they were welcomed by the mayor, vice-mayor, and members of the council. They were given maps of the town and the latest edition of Night Times, hot off the presses. Our guests were learning to count money, so each was given twenty “bat dollars” to spend and twenty minutes to spend them. One kindergartner remarked to his teacher as he departed Bat Town, “I can’t believe they were only third and fourth graders!”

Seeing those happy young tourists and my even happier Bat Town citizens, so proud of their hard work and efforts, I thought to myself that this experience was truly a Roosevelt memory worth making, something the children will remember long after they’ve left these hallways for wider roads which beckon them to futures yet unknown. The efforts of all, and the small community we built together in room 116, will live in our memories, just as sweet old Roxaboxen lingered in the memories of those long-ago children of the 1930s even “as the seasons changed and the years went by.”

 

Notes

1. Rod Stark, Classroom City: A Simulation for Young Persons of Economics and Government in a Small American City, Grades 4-9 (El Cajon, CA: Interaction Publishers, 1995).

2. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: Author, 1994). Time, Continuity, and Change is the second of the ten standards themes, and People, Places, and Environments is the third.

3. George Ella Lyon, Who Came Down that Road? (New York: Orchard Paperbacks, 1996).

4. Dyan Sheldon, Under the Moon (New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 1994).

5. Bonnie Pryor, The House on Maple Street (New York: Mulberry Books, 1987).

6. Renata Von Tscharner, Ronald Lee Fleming and the Townscape Institute, “The Changing American Cityscape Poster Set,” seven posters, portfolio, 32-page teaching guide (Palo Alto, CA: Dale Seymour Publications, 1996).

7. Alice McLerran, Roxaboxen (New York: Puffin Books, 1992).

 

Andrea McGann Keech teaches at Roosevelt Elementary School, Iowa City, Iowa.